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Dynamics Of The New Great Game In Afghanistan: Implications For India

Major General BK Sharma (Retd) writes, the evolving geopolitical scenario in Afghanistan is pointing to what noted Spanish philosopher George Santayana had said: ‘‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. History is repeating itself in Afghanistan that has emerged as the epicentre of the ‘New Zero Sum Cold War’ in Eurasia.

Empire after empire has failed to pacify Afghanistan, giving it the ignominious tag of ‘Graveyard of Empires’. During the first Great Game in the 19th century, the British Army after suffering heavy casualties in the two Afghan wars eventually abandoned Afghanistan after declaring it as a buffer state. Gen Roberts, the British commander, had aptly surmised: “the less the Afghans see us, less they dislike us”. The second Great Game of the 20th century ended in the humiliating withdrawal of the mighty Soviet Army from Afghanistan and the consequent break-up of the Soviet Union. Post 9/11, Afghanistan has become the arena of the New Great Game of the 21st century. President Ashraf Ghani at the time of assuming office had quipped, “history will not be repeated, we have overcome the past”. However, the evolving geopolitical scenario in Afghanistan is pointing to what noted Spanish philosopher George Santayana had said: ‘‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. History is repeating itself in Afghanistan that has emerged as the epicentre of the ‘New Zero Sum Cold War’ in Eurasia.

The international community espouses support to ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled peace process’; be at the Warsaw Summit, Brussels’ International Donors Conference or the declarations made at the ‘Heart of Asia’, BRICS and SCO summits. But, in realpolitik, they pursue a zero-sum game in combating terrorism in Afghanistan. Supping with the Taliban and bypassing the National Unity Government (NUG) in Kabul has become the new normal. At the November 9 Moscow Conference, the Taliban delegation was allotted 15 minutes to articulate their demands vis-a-vis five minutes allotted to the delegation of NUG-supported High Peace Council. The Moscow event was projected as a great diplomatic success by Putin to position Russia as a principal player and the Taliban as a legitimate stakeholder in the reconciliation process.

China, another protagonist, seeks to leverage good relations with the Taliban to insulate BRI infrastructure and expand its engagement from the economic sphere to the security arena. Iran takes its pie in the bargain by aligning with an anti-American dispensation. The Russia–China–Pakistan–Iran–Taliban alignment has strong anti-U.S. undertones that will impact India as well. United States’ policy of direct talks with the Taliban under the tutelage of Zalmay Khalilzad is casting doubts on the efficacy of President Trump’s South Asia policy and hints at the invincibility of the Taliban. There is a growing perception that U.S. is desperately looking forward to ending its Afghan war and not the war of Afghanistan with the Taliban or Pakistan. The suspicion is growing that U.S. will do a patchwork of Taliban-NUG reconciliation as a prelude to its exit from Afghanistan.

Pakistan, the villain on the chessboard, has become the new darling in the reconciliation process. Even President Trump has approached Prime Minister Imran Khan to help in the U.S.-Taliban dialogue process. Efforts are on to find a modus vivendi between the Afghan Taliban and NUG. The United States is determined to postpone the presidential elections in Afghanistan till they achieve some accommodation with the Taliban. In the meanwhile, President Ghani has constituted an eleven-member ‘peace constitution board’ under Salam Rahimi, his chief of staff, to negotiate with the Taliban.

The Americans or the NUG are negotiating with the Taliban from a position of weakness. The Taliban control nearly 46 per cent of Afghanistan’s territory. The Haqqani network has about 45000 motivated fighters, a robust politico-military organisation and runs shadow governments in the territory controlled by them. Pakistan’s other proxies active in Afghanistan are the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, HeM, and the Al Badr group with an estimated 7500 fighters. Regional terrorist outfits such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Jamat ul Ansar comprise about 2000 fighters. Al Qaeda with about 200 fighters and the 3,500-strong ISKP are the other hardcore jihadi outfits operating in Afghanistan. On the whole, the Taliban provide an umbrella of local knowledge, financial and tactical support to an array of other groups. It is estimated that the Taliban earn US $500 million every year through narco-financing. All terrorist groups are united in their ideological cause of making Afghanistan a Caliphate, run on Sharia or Nizam-e-Mustafa, albeit with occasional tactical contestations.

Despite major restructuring, improvement in firepower and logistics support, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) has suffered about 30,000 casualties since 2015. The abnormally high casualty rate has dampened the morale of the security forces while U.S. and NATO troops are reportedly cautious due to ‘Green on Green’ attacks. The response of the ANSF to attacks against soft targets, particularly in the population centres, remains poor. This has created a sense of insecurity in the minds of the civil population and has further emboldened the terrorists.

The previous top U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen Nicholson had told me that “Gen Qamar Bajwa had emphatically stated to me that Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy would remain India-centric”. Rangin Dafdar Spanta, the former Afghan NSA, wrote in Afghanistan Times (November 26, 2018), that Pakistan had urged his government to close down new Indian consulates and decline assistance in construction work, business activities, training of Afghan security personnel, civil servants and diplomats, intelligence sharing and military hardware. Islamabad had offered a joint consortium of Pakistan and China, which among other things included investments in the mining sector of Afghanistan.

It would be prudent to correlate these conditions with the demands made by the Taliban at the Moscow conference. They demanded redrafting of Afghanistan’s constitution, making it Sharia-centric, withdrawal of foreign troops, removing the Taliban from the UN declared terrorist lists and release of Taliban prisoners. Informed circles believe that in a new power-sharing arrangement, the Taliban may be provided safe zones in the southern and eastern provinces thus making them de-facto administrators, with some representation at Kabul. The next Pakistan ploy would be to use its proxies to target Indian projects and truncate India’s politico-diplomatic profile in Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, many Afghans perceive India as their only reliable strategic partner in bringing peace and development to their country. They approve of the functioning of the Foreign Ministers council and working groups under the rubric of the India-Afghan Strategic Partnership agreement 2011. There is widespread appreciation of the air freight corridors, sea-land Chabahar corridor, ITEC and scholarships programmes, speedy completion of development projects and medical-cum-military assistance. There is some bitterness about the UPA government dithering in helping the ANSF when it was desperately low on military hardware and ammunition. The slow development of the Chabahar-Zaranj-Delaram axis are other sore points.

But Afghans are keenly looking at India for enhanced security cooperation in areas such as institutionalised system of intelligence sharing, formulation of counterterrorism strategy, border management, customised military training to suit operational environment obtaining in Afghanistan, battle casualty rescue and management, civic action projects in conflict zones, military aid, repair of Soviet origin transport aircraft and helicopters and imparting high-level technical skills. Afghans expect India to support their membership at the SCO /SCO contact group. They favour India playing a lead role in undertaking joint developmental projects with China, Russia and Uzbekistan.

Geo-strategically, Afghanistan is a gateway for India’s ‘Connect Central Asia policy’. India seeks to strengthen Afghanistan as a rallying point against the rising spectre of jihadi terrorism. India must be cognisant of the evolving geopolitical alignments in Afghanistan that are inimical to India’s core interests. India needs to review its Afghanistan strategy to preserve and promote its abiding strategic interests in the region.

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